Radical history

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Note on all that follows: the word “radical” comes from the Latin “radix” or “root.” Radical change is change at the root. Radical history is a history of roots: the stuff at the bottom that anchors and feeds everything else.

Terry Bisson’s talk was about the historical research he has done for various projects. Interesting stuff. He has led an interesting life, as well as writing truly wonderful science fiction. There was supposed to be a historian there, and he and Terry were supposed to talk about researching radical history. But the historian was at home, having done something terrible to his back. Anyway, I started thinking about history and science fiction. I’m going to make some huge generalizations, because I’m thinking out loud or maybe in electrons…

There are three fundamental lies told by traditional histories:

  1. History is made by famous men, rather than by ordinary people.
  2. The broad trends of history are smooth.
  3. The broad trends of history are inevitable.

These are my thoughts in reply:

1) History to me is social change, and it is made by everyone. A lot of it is made by people changing their living habits, the tools they use, the crops they grow and how they grow those crops. According to the anthropologist Jack Weatherford, Russia and Prussia became great empires, because the potato was imported from the New World. It grows more reliably in northern climates than do grains. Before the potato, Russia and Prussia were subject to regular famines. After, they could feed their populations and their armies.

2) History tends to be taught in Ages, which are broadly described. This gives the illusion that history is smooth. Rome is followed by the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Modern Times. Dum-dum-dum-dum. In fact, history is full of small changes and local variation. By ignoring these, historians give the impression that ordinary people have almost no part in history. They emerge — briefly — in great popular struggles and revolutions, and then disappear. The great demonstrations in Egypt this year, which brought down the government, were preceded by years of labor struggle, which was not covered in the US media. Often, these local struggles are lost. They rarely achieve everything hoped for. But they continue. The placid 1950s in America — the golden age for conservatives — had strikes by a union movement that was still comparatively strong, the struggle against McCarthyism, the early years of the Civil Rights Movement, the Beat Generation and the rise of rock music, which turned political in the 1960s and remains a form of popular expression.

3) History tends to be taught as if it’s mostly inevitable. In fact, it seems to me, it is often contingent. Things could turn out differently. This was where science fiction and alternative history come in: they show history as mutable. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is about an America where the Axis Powers won the war. Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain is about an America where John Brown succeeded at Harper’s Ferry, and the final result is a black republic in the South.

Immanual Wallerstein argues that societies are usually stable, with periods of instability when they can change rapidly. This may be true. But the periods of instability are preceded by decades of struggle, that train people for change and keep hope alive. I would never argue that changing the world’s superstructure is easy. But we must remember that the world is, in fact, changing all the time; and the small changes prepare us for the great convulsions.

So a radical history, it seems to me, ought to be popular, bumpy, turbulent, active and contingent. It ought to show the achievements of ordinary people, and the ways that ordinary life changes over time. All of American history is seething with struggle: labor wars, farmers movements, the Abolitionists, the struggle of American Indians to save some part of their native lands, Feminism, the fight of every ethnic group to overcome prejudice and establish new lives in a difficult environment. If you don’t see these struggles and how they changed society and how people have been able to survive and sometimes win, then you will believe that the bosses always come out on top, and There Is No Alternative, as in the famous words of Margaret Thatcher.

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